An old‑fashioned life, David Mackay

Captain James Cook: A Biography
Richard Hough
Hodder & Stoughton, $54.95

Explorers do not always present easy subjects for biographers. Often the central achievements take up a relatively small portion of their lives and the doggedness and perseverance required for the central task does not always make for an interesting life outside of the main events.

The Australian explorer Ernest Giles, for example, crossed the continent from east to west and back again, producing an unreadable account, Australia Twice Traversed. Outside of these expeditions however, Giles was a dull and colourless figure of very limited achievements. His social skills were perfectly adapted to life in the outback with camels and Aboriginal guides who spoke no English. His biographer, Ray Eriksen, struggled to find anything interesting to say about his life before and after the journeys.

Voyages by sea present similar problems. Weeks or even months could go by with little of interest happening while commanders committed to their logs and journals accounts of winds, tides and astronomical observations. Seafarers were often laconic characters, uncomfortable off the quarter deck and with little romantic imagination or literary flair.

The voyages of James Cook offer more promising material and a life which raises intriguing questions. Why at the comparatively late age of 27 did he opt to join the navy, abandoning a promising career in merchant shipping? Why did a man from such a humble background display such a fervour for scientific surveying and navigation? How was he able to attract the support of powerful patrons in such an aristocratic age? What demon drove him to push past the limits which many regarded as comfortable and safe? Why, when he was obviously weary from the effects of two long voyages, did he commit himself to another? What mixture of Hawaiian belief and European ineptitude and confusion led to his death on the beach at Kealakekua Bay? What has been the overall impact of his voyages on the lives of Pacific peoples?

And yet even Cook’s life is susceptible to that problem which confronts the biographers of explorers. Unless handled imaginatively, his life is in danger of becoming merely a list of one damn cape after another; tedious, repetitive and largely devoid of interest.

Beaglehole’s classic, beautifully written biography was the product of over 25 years absorption with the life of Cook and it managed to avoid this pitfall. Some 150 pages were devoted to the period before the sailing of the Endeavour, laying the groundwork for the three great voyages in the Pacific. As the voyages progressed, the character of the commander was continuously to the fore and the tragic end was seen in the context of the lapses of judgement, mood swings and health problems which beset the third voyage and had even made an appearance in the second.

Richard Hough’s biography appears 20 years after Beaglehole’s account and has an uncomfortable relationship to it. At one point it is described as “an immense biography published posthumously”, as though it were a ponderous and unapproachable work. However Beaglehole’s Life forms the indispensable backbone to all that Hough writes. In general he adds very little to the earlier account and at some points, for example in dealing with Cook’s surveying work in Canada, Hough draws almost exclusively on the earlier writer. Many of the maps are reproduced directly from the Beaglehole editions of Cook’s Journals.

The Journals of Cook and Banks, and other edited accounts by officers and members of the crews provide the principal sources for the biography. These are generally used skilfully to produce a fluent and colourful narrative and a generally balanced survey of the scope of the three Pacific voyages, although there is some unevenness in the coverage, with the Melanesian parts of the second voyage and American parts of the third truncated in comparison with the rest of the Pacific.

This is an attempt at a more popular biography than that of Beaglehole: the paragraphing is kept short and the style racy, with considerable imaginative fill‑in. When it gets to the details of Cook’s death, the nature of the writing changes sharply and the reader becomes privy to a dialogue between the participants of which there can be no record. There is more concern to tell a tale and less scrupulousness in regard to author’s licence.

In spite of this, Hough’s biography lacks the elegance, drama and authority of the Beaglehole account. The personalities of the lesser figures are not brought to life as vigorously. The tension of the first landing in Poverty Bay, the near disaster of the Barrier Reef or the great ice‑edge cruises are missing. One never senses the quality of life aboard the vessels or the character of the vessels themselves. There is nothing to match the evocative power of Beaglehole’s description of the Resolution; “… of all the ships of the past, could she by enchantment be recreated and made immortal, one would gaze on her with something like reverence.”

The real tragedy of the new biography is that it fails in any way to exploit the great increase in Cook scholarship over the last 20 years. In this respect it offers much less than the Beaglehole Life. No attempt has been made to understand the Pacific context of the voyages or to comprehend the society and culture of Pacific peoples, as is the case in Lynne Withey’s Voyages of Discovery. Oskar Spate’s majestic, three-volume Pacific Since Magellan is ignored, even though the last volume has Cook as its centrepiece. The work of Bernard Smith and Rüdiger Joppien on the art of Cook’s voyages is ignored, as is that of Sählins and Obeyesekere on the death of Cook. There is no reference to Anne Salmond’s Two Worlds and no indication in the text that it has been consulted. The great outpouring of work on the northwest coast of America over the last two decades has been ignored. This is a biography which seldom gets off the deck of Cook’s ships.

It might be argued that in an unashamedly popular biography these shortcomings could be excused, that most readers will be satisfied with a more digestible life which sees the great commander in unproblematic terms. But the general reader, too, has every right to expect recent research and scholarship will be brought to bear to illuminate the past.

The tone throughout is patronizing, and Polynesian behaviour is viewed consistently through the lens of European experience and expectation. No attempt is made to establish the proper orthography of names. The names used are those of the Journals: Purea remains Obadia, Tu is Otoo, Hitihiti is Odiddy. Worse, the Greek names Hercules and Lycurgus which Joseph Banks ironically applied are used for Tuteha and Tupu‑raa‑tamaiti. This is insulting or lazy or both.

Hough is particularly uncomfortable in dealing with New Zealand and Maori. Two of his chapters are entitled “These People are Much Given to War” and “Horrors of Grass Cove” ‑ a reference to the killing of some of the Adventure‘s crew in the Queen Charlotte Sound. Cook’s rather philosophical attitude to cannibalism is disapproved of. Place names present a problem. Tolaga Bay is Tologa in the first voyage, but Tolago by the second. Dusky Sound becomes Dusky Bay. The article is dropped in describing the main islands and Hough exaggerates by 500 miles the shortest distance between the Australian and New Zealand coasts. No attempt is made to understand Maori ethnography and weapons are described as “pikes” and “darts” as the crew of the Endeavour or Resolution would have described them.

There are other oddities. Names of crew members are altered to produce a familiar effect. Richard Pickersgill becomes Dick, although he did not sign himself this way. James Magra is reduced to Jim. The same fate doesn’t fall to Jimmy Cook or Joe Banks, but clearly all was much chummier off the quarterdeck. Contradictions and infelicities abound: on the second voyage we learn that Bouvet Island is the most isolated spot in the world, but later Easter Island claims the same title. After an account of a gruesome suicide on the first voyage the author goes on immediately to describe the beauty of tropical birds. There is testimony to either the fecundity or duplicity of the Cook marriage at the end of the second voyage: “within a week or two of her husband’s return, Elizabeth Cook knew that she was pregnant again”.

Hough’s book will no doubt satisfy those who want a straightforward and generally well‑written account of James Cook’s exploration of the Pacific. New Zealand readers will find it a curious, rather old-fashioned and frustrating book. Those wanting a more up‑to‑date account of the voyages and in particular their dealings with Pacific peoples would do better to read Withey’s Voyages of Discovery. Those wishing to find out more about Cook will find a richer, more compelling, informed and up‑to‑date account in Beaglehole’s Life. The tragedy is that that Life has never gone into paperback.

David Mackay is a senior lecturer in history at Victoria University of Wellington.

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